Three Sisters of the Assumption are shown with students at Ermineskin Indian Residential School near Hobbema in this photo dated 1940.


Three Sisters of the Assumption are shown with students at Ermineskin Indian Residential School near Hobbema in this photo dated 1940.

February 3, 2014

To us, it would seem a minor request. A young student at the Edmonton Indian Residential School, Kathleen Steinhauer, confronted with the same "cold, lumpy oatmeal" for breakfast that she had seen numerous times previously, raised her hand and asked, "Could I have some brown sugar?"

"The staff member hit me so hard I hit against the cement wall, and [my friend] Sarah got hit too, and she was crying.

"The woman hit me, and I fell backwards. Nobody was sitting on the other side so I went flying and hit the wall. . . . This was my first horrible memory of that school," Steinhauer recalled in the recent book she co-authored with Nellie Carlson and Linda Goyette, Disinherited Generations (University of Alberta Press, 2013).

Steinhauer was a student at the United Church-run school from age five to eight when her mother pulled she and her sister out of the school. Her sister

Doreen had been deathly ill with pneumonia, but the school never notified their parents.

Steinhauer said the favourite punishment at the school was to put children in a dark broom closet under the stairs.

Her experiences of punishment at the Edmonton Residential School were typical of those told by numerous other students at the schools across the West.

In his book, Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools (Heritage House, 2010), Manitoba aboriginal Theodore Fontaine described being clobbered and knocked to the floor at age 14 by a Catholic religious brother who smelled cigarette smoke on his clothes.


Bleeding profusely, he walked the mile from the Oblate-run Fort Alexander Residential School to his family's house, begging his parents to pull him out of the school.

His mother wouldn't let him quit school, but allowed him to register as a day student. Fontaine eventually went to a residential high school in Winnipeg, but quit before completing Grade 11. Years later in Edmonton, he completed high school and then earned a certificate in civil engineering technology from NAIT.


Age 69 the year his book was published, Fontaine said the residential school experience never left him. For 40 years, he was afraid of the dark and wouldn't go to sleep unless there was some source of light in his room.

Eventually, he traced that fear back to when he was nine and said something in his native Ojibway at the residential school. A religious sister grabbed him and shoved him into a broom closet for an extended period.


Fontaine never regained his respect for the Catholic Church, and accused the Church, most likely erroneously, of lining its own pockets by skimping on food and clothing provided to the students.

"The respect and awe in which our people held the clergy was mostly based on fear of damnation and the devil," he wrote. "Their agenda was to satisfy their contract with the government, to establish power and control over our people."

Although corporal punishment was common in child-rearing in white society in the era during which Indian residential schools were at their peak, Peter Harrison, a former senior federal government official, said, "The scale of such punishment at residential schools was beyond any level of acceptability."

Students were hunted down for running away from school, placed in cages for days for all to see, and deprived of food and access to toilet facilities while in a cage, Harrison said in a presentation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


"The abuse meted out often far exceeded any of the standards of the time, or of any time," he said. "This was not just the strap."

In 1902, eight-year-old Duncan Sticks died of exposure after fleeing the Williams Lake Industrial School. A subsequent investigation found a history of neglect and violence at the Catholic school.

In his bestselling history of residential schools published in 1999, A National Crime (University of Manitoba Press), author John Milloy quoted student Christine Haines who spoke at the Williams Lake inquest and who had twice run away from the school.

"The sisters didn't treat me good – they gave me rotten food to eat and punished me for not eating it. The meat and soup were rotten and tasted so bad they made the girls sick sometime," Christine said.

When she disobeyed the nuns, she said she was locked in a "cold and dark" room, fed bread and water, and beaten "with a strap sometimes on the face. And sometimes [they] took my clothes off and beat me. This is the reason I ran away."

The staff at the school rejected the claims of brutality made by Christine and other children. However, the sister in charge of girls at the school did admit that "sometimes girls [were] shut up in a room for serious faults for periods varying from a few hours to 10 to 12 days – this is the longest time."


One of the male teachers claimed the students were well-treated, but admitted that he did use a saddle whip on children guilty of "immorality" (p. 143).

In the early years of the residential schools, Milloy wrote, there were no comprehensive guidelines on discipline and punishment. Those guidelines that did exist were frequently ignored by the schools.

"There was a pronounced and persistent reluctance on the part of the department [of Indian Affairs] to deal forcefully with the incidents of abuse, to dismiss, as was its right, or lay charges against, school staff who abused the children," Milloy wrote.


Staff at the schools were no doubt under considerable stress. Government funding of the schools was chronically far less than what was required to meet even basic student needs and a not-insignificant number of staff were ill-suited for working in such a situation.

Nevertheless, there is no excuse for the brutality with which so many students were treated at the schools.

The emotional scars left by that punishment have had repercussions not only on the individuals who were "disciplined," but on entire aboriginal communities. It is one of the lasting legacies of the Indian residential schools.